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New York Times Calls $2.5 Billion Mars Curiosity Rover a "Tidbit"

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Mar-2012 (Updated: 13-Mar-2012 10:26 AM)

Editorial Commentary:   In a news story today, the New York Times bemoans the cut to robotic Mars exploration plans, adding that "There are still a few tidbits left."   It identifies the "tidbits" as the Mars Curiosity rover currently enroute to Mars and the MAVEN mission scheduled for launch next year.

Curiosity hopefully will make a successful landing on Mars in August, though the novel "sky crane" landing system will have everyone biting their nails during descent.  Twice as long and five times as heavy as the Spirit and Opportunity rovers already on Mars, Curiosity is the size of a mini Cooper and designed to roll over obstacles up to two feet high. Its scientific equipment is 10 times more massive than the earlier rovers. Not to mention -- and the New York Times does not -- that its life cycle cost is $2.5 billion, a 56 percent overrun according to NASA's Inspector General.  That's quite a tidbit.

The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission is indeed a less ambitious mission.  An orbiter rather than a lander, it will try to determine what caused "the Martian atmosphere -- and water -- to be lost to space."   GAO reports that MAVEN will cost $671 million.  That may be a tidbit in comparison to Curiosity, but certainly not to the average American taxpayer.

Across the land, everyone wants to cut the deficit -- as long as it's not THEIR program that suffers as a result.   It is certainly fair for the Mars community to fight for their program; that's how the game is played.  One would hope, however, that the news media would refrain from picking favorites except on their editorial pages.   For that matter, what program(s) would the New York Times prefer to have cut instead, or does it believe that NASA should be exempt from cuts?  That is a weighty question on which the esteemed newspaper probably should comment. 

In the meantime, with all due respect, calling a $2.5 billion Mars rover a "tidbit" is laughable. 

NuSTAR Flight Readiness Review and Media Briefing Postponed

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Mar-2012 (Updated: 12-Mar-2012 02:47 PM)

NASA announced today that the Flight Readiness Review (FRR) for its NuSTAR mission is being delayed and thus a media briefing scheduled for tomorrow (Tuesday) is postponed.

The Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) mission will be launched on Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Pegasus rocket.  NASA's announcement said that additional time is needed "for a review of data and simulations to qualify software associated with a new Pegasus flight computer."  NuSTAR is an X-ray telescope.  Fiona Harrison of CalTech is the principal investigator for the mission. 

The Pegasus rocket is dropped from an aircraft.   In this case, the aircraft will depart from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands (in the Pacific).  The launch was scheduled for March 22; a new launch date will be announced once the FRR is completed.

Lopez-Alegria New President of Commercial Spaceflight Federation

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Mar-2012 (Updated: 12-Mar-2012 02:27 PM)

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) announced today that Michael Lopez-Alegria is its new President effective March 19.

NASA had issued a press release hours earlier announcing that he had left the agency.  A NASA astronaut, he holds the record for the longest spaceflight mission for a U.S. astronaut, the most spacewalks (10), and the longest time accumulated in spacewalks (64 hours 40 minutes).   He flew on three space shuttle missions and one International Space Station (ISS) mission.  The ISS mission lasted 215 days, the longest to date.

CSF Chairman Eric Anderson said CSF was "incredibly excited" to have a "leader and a true pioneer" heading the organization, which is dedicated to promoting the development of commercial human spaceflight.



Events of Interest: Week of March 12-16, 2012-update

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Mar-2012 (Updated: 12-Mar-2012 02:34 PM)

UPDATE:  NASA has postponed the press briefing on NuSTAR that was scheduled for Tuesday.

The following events may be of interest in the week ahead.

The Senate is in session this week.  The House is in recess except for pro forma sessions.

Monday, March 12

Monday-Thursday, March 12-15

  • Satellite 2012, Water E. Washington Convention Center, Washington, DC

Tuesday, March 13

Wednesday, March 14

House Appropriators Reject NASA's Plan for Mars Cuts

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Mar-2012 (Updated: 10-Mar-2012 06:40 PM)

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) issued a press release yesterday praising the decision by Rep. Frank Wolf to reject NASA's plan to discontinue cooperating with the European Space Agency (ESA) on Mars probes intended to be launched in 2016 and 2018.

Schiff, who represents the district where the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is located, thanked Wolf for "rejecting this reprogramming request by NASA," which he said would be a "disaster for America's leadership in planetary science."  Wolf chairs the House Appropriations Committee's Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee that funds NASA.  Schiff is a member of the subcommittee.  JPL builds many of NASA's planetary exploration probes.

According to the Schiff press release, Wolf sent a letter to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden last week "outlining his opposition to NASA's reprogramming proposal until it can be properly debated."

NASA's decision to cut the planetary science portion of its budget by 21 percent in FY2013 is highly controversial in Congress because of the popularity of Mars exploration and of JPL, as well as the potential consequences for international cooperation in other space activities.  The planetary science community is up in arms about the potential cuts, and the head of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, John Grunsfeld, is trying to come up with an affordable plan to launch a smaller Mars probe in 2018.

Satellite Industry "Denounces" UNIDROIT Approval

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Mar-2012 (Updated: 10-Mar-2012 02:46 PM)

Despite intense opposition, the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law (UNIDROIT) adopted and opened for signature a protocol that critics say could significanlty damage the global commercial communications satellite industry.

UNIDROIT adopted the protocol on March 9, 2012 at a meeting in Berlin, Germany.

In a strongly worded statement the same day, the major companies and organizations involved in the satellite communications business "denounced" the action.  Simon Twiston Davies of the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia (CASBAA) said "This new layer of supra-national law can only make the financing of new satellite projects more difficult and expensive, including those planned by developing nations to serve their citizens."    David Hartshorn of the Global VSAT Forum added that "We hope that States will note the concerns of the global satellite industry and not ratify the protocol."  Patricia Cooper of the U.S. Satellite Industry Association (SIA) called the action "disappointing" considering the "clear and unified opposition" of the industry.

The statement was issued by the European Satellite Operators' Association, SIA, the Space Industry Association of Australia, the Canadian Satellite and Space Industry Forum, CASBAA, and the Global VSAT Forum.  It noted that "The global satellite sector continues to show unprecedented unity in its opposition to the UNIDROIT Space Assets Protocol."

In December, more than 90 companies wrote to the Secretary General of UNIDROIT explaining their opposition and urging UNIDROIT to "halt your plans" to adopt it.   Those pleas clearly were not heeded.


Sen. Rockefeller “Appalled” at Obama Proposal to Move NOAA to Interior

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 09-Mar-2012 (Updated: 09-Mar-2012 05:04 PM)

Wednesday’s Senate hearing on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was intended to focus on its FY2013 budget request, but Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) used it to voice his opposition to President Obama’s recent proposal to move NOAA to the Department of the Interior.

During his opening remarks, Rockefeller, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation, said that he is “appalled” by the Obama Administration’s proposal to move NOAA from the Department of Commerce into the Department of the Interior.  He explained that his criticism had little to do with jurisdictional concerns, but stemmed from the fact that the proposal “simply does not make any sense.” “I can’t live with the thought of NOAA moved to the Department of Interior,” he emphasized.

The reorganization – part of a larger proposal announced by the White House in January to eliminate the Department of Commerce and create a new department focused on U.S. business and trade that would consolidate parts of Commerce with other federal agencies – was not mentioned again during the hearing.

The Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and the Coast Guard hearing was convened to review the FY2013 budget requests for the Coast Guard and NOAA, and most of the Senators’ attention was focused on proposed cuts to the Coast Guard budget and on non-space-related NOAA programs.

During a brief discussion about satellites, several Senators expressed concern that increases to NOAA’s satellite programs – although critical – would have undue impact on smaller programs. Subcommittee Chairman Senator Mark Begich (D-AK) said, for example, that the launch and start of operations of the Suomi NPP satellite “could not come at a better time with a record number [of] billion dollar weather disasters last year.”  Suomi NPP was built and launched by NASA, but eventually will become part of NOAA’s operational polar-orbit weather satellite constellation.  

Nevertheless, with funding for satellites taking up more than 40 percent of the total NOAA budget, Begich said that he remains concerned about the growth in NOAA satellite requirements impacting key ocean science missions. As satellites continue to “crowd out other elements” in the budget, Begich asked NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco what long-term strategy NOAA is taking to control their costs. In her response, she used the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) as an example and reiterated the agency’s commitment to adhere to the program’s $12.9 billion life-cycle cost cap: “that is a reflection of our intent to…put a lid on the total amount” of the program, she said.



HASC -- Don't Cut Space Test Program or ORS

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Mar-2012 (Updated: 08-Mar-2012 06:47 PM)

The hearing was short and sweet, but members of the Strategic Forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) got their points across: do not cut two Air Force programs that focus on small satellites -- the Space Test Program (STP) and the Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) program.  They also disagreed with each other over the wisdom of negotiating an international Code of Conduct for outer space activities.

Subcommittee chairman Michael Turner (R-OH) began the hearing by noting that the budget request for unclassified national security space programs is down 22 percent from FY2012.  He expressed concern that many of the cuts are from research and development (R&D) programs and termination of STP and ORS.  General William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command (AFSC), explained that the reduction is due to several factors, including --

  • completion and "ramp down" of some programs,
  • two Wideband Global SATCOM satellites were funded in FY2012 so another is not needed this year,
  • no funding is requested for the Defense Weather Satellite System that Congress terminated last year and the Air Force is not seeking to revive, and
  • difficult choices were made because AFSC had to contribute its "fair share" of cuts to achieve the overall reduction to DOD's budget required by the Budget Control Act.  

Turner, ranking member Loretta Sanchez (D-CA), and Rep. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) pressed the case for restoring funds for STP and ORS.  All heralded the achievements of STP over the past almost five decades, including its role in development of the Global Positioning System (GPS).  They similarly extolled the virtues of the ORS program, whose purpose is to demonstrate that satellites can be built and launched on relatively short schedules to respond to urgent warfighter needs.   One satellite, ORS-1, was launched and according to comments at the hearing was a great success.

Shelton stressed that the ORS concept was not going away, just the program office for it.   He insisted that the idea of building small satellites on short notice was being embraced throughout Air Force space programs, this was only a matter of eliminating the program office. 

As for STP, Shelton and Gil Klinger, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space and Intelligence, argued that there are other places in DOD where such R&D takes place and in making difficult budget choices, the decision was made to eliminate STP.  Shelton cited the Air Force Research Lab, the Naval Research Lab, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and "the Army" as alternative places for research.   Heinrich honed in on that comment, asking Shelton if those labs had been consulted to see if they could take up any of the STP work.   Shelton conceded that they were not because of the press of time when final decisions were being made, but coordination is underway now.

Clear divisions between Republicans and Democrats on the wisdom of negotiating an international Code of Conduct (CoC) for outer space activities were evident at the hearing.  The European Union (EU) drafted a CoC that sets out what good behavior is for spacefaring countries -- such as not creating space debris -- with the idea that it therefore implicitly defines bad behavior.  The United States calls it a good start on an international CoC and has committed to working with the EU and other countries on it.

Turner, however, called it an effort to circumvent the Senate's role in approving arms control agreements.  Greg Schulte, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy, insisted that it would be a non-binding agreement.  Turner was not assuaged and said that language would be included in this year's National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to deal with the situation, but was not more specific.  Sanchez defended the plan to negotiate a CoC saying she was encouraged that the United States will enter into a conversation about it with other countries.

Export control reform was another hot topic, but despite diligent attempts, Sanchez was unable to get Schulte to tell the subcommittee when the final "section 1248" report will be submitted.   It is two years late, she said.  The requirement for a report on the national security implications of moving commercial communications satellites from the State Department's Munitions List to the Commerce Department's Control List is in section 1248 of the 2010 NDAA.  DOD submitted an interim report last year, but the final report has not appeared.   Schulte would only say that he "hoped" it would be submitted "very soon."  He noted that the interim report recommended that commercial communications satellites be transferred to the Commerce Control List and he expected the final report to include other items that similarly could be moved.




Rep. Harris Disappointed In NOAA Budget Priorities, Irritated at Lack of Documentation

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 08-Mar-2012 (Updated: 08-Mar-2012 05:17 AM)

Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee that oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA),  expressed “extreme disappointment” that NOAA’s FY2013 budget request puts a priority on satellites and climate research.

At  Tuesday’s hearing of his Energy and Environment Subcommittee, he also chastised NOAA for failing to deliver the detailed budget justification documents that help explain the rationale behind such decisions in a timely manner.  “We’re simply unable to provide a complete assessment of the request,” he asserted, adding that a House Appropriations subcommittee had to cancel its hearing on NOAA last week for that reason.

The agency’s failure to provide the documents fuels a perception on Capitol Hill that “the Administration is not being a good steward of taxpayer money,” he continued.  Apologizing for the delay, NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco explained that it was the result of lateness in finalizing the FY2012 spending plan, which affected the baseline of many programs. She promised to deliver the documents to the committee by March 14.

Harris chided the overall increase for NOAA, which would receive $5.1 billion under the President’s request, a 3.1 percent increase from FY2012, as inconsistent with budget reality. He further criticized the Administration for prioritizing its “political environmental agenda” ahead of core science needs, with climate research being a “big winner,” in addition to satellites, which account for over 40% of the total request. This emphasis, according to Harris, suggests that the Administration has prioritized understanding climate conditions “decades from now” over predicting weather conditions tomorrow, a misplaced proposal that “should be rejected by Congress.”

To correct the assumption that climate research would be useful only decades from now, Lubchenco explained in her testimony that understanding how the climate system works directly connects with helping people prepare for “what will happen in the months ahead, years ahead and decades ahead; all of those.”

Several Members of the subcommittee expressed concern over cuts to NOAA’s National Weather Service (NWS), which issues critical weather warnings and forecasts. Ranking Member Brad Miller (D-NC) worried that “we are eating our seed corn” through cuts that may sacrifice services the public relies upon, such as weather forecasting.

Lubchenco explained that NOAA’s Weather-Ready Nation initiative – which covers data collection, modeling and forecasting, as well as the ability of communities to act in response to these messages – demonstrates that continuing and improving these capabilities remains critical to the agency’s mission. Furthermore, she said that the increase in satellite funding and the decrease in NWS, mostly in administrative efficiencies, is not a contradiction. The requested increase for satellites is due precisely to their importance because they provide 90 percent of the data that feeds into numerical models used by the NWS, she explained.

She emphasized the need to fully fund the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) not just this year but on a sustained basis to minimize the duration of the expected gap between operations of the recently launched Suomi NPP satellite and the launch of JPSS-1 in 2017. The Administration’s “aggressive” calls for sustained funding of the program stem from the fact that there are no “viable alternative options” to obtain equivalent data during the projected gap. “These satellites are too important to not be on the path to success,” she emphasized.


Congress Still Concerned about SLS Versus Commercial Crew

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Mar-2012 (Updated: 07-Mar-2012 10:35 PM)

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden faced off against two congressional committees today, one in the Senate and one in the House.  A common theme was the Obama Administration's FY2013 budget request for the future of the human spaceflight program and what many see as a competition between commercial crew services to the International Space Station (ISS) and a NASA-developed system to take astronauts further into the solar system.

Both the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and the House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearings raised questions about other priorities in the NASA budget request -- especially funding for robotic Mars exploration -- but the focus was firmly on commercial crew versus the Space Launch System (SLS) and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) space capsule (called Orion) Congress directed NASA to build in the 2010 NASA authorization act.

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) accused the Obama Administration of blatantly taking money from SLS/Orion for the commercial crew program.  In an unusually testy public exchange, Bolden insisted to Senator Hutchison that no one in the room was more passionate about SLS/Orion than himself.  His confidence that SLS/Orion is on the right track may account for his seeming lack of passion for it, he suggested.

NASA's decision to use Space Act Agreements (SAAs) instead of traditional procurement methods under the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FARs) also was debated.   Bolden assured both committees that it had sufficient insight under the SAAs to know if companies planning to compete for commercial crew opportunities would meet NASA's requirements.

The Administration's decision to cut funding for NASA's planetary science program, especially the decision to not participate in what was planned as NASA-European Space Agency joint missions to Mars in 2016 and 2018 -- was also mentioned.   While clearly a concern of these two authorization committees, the future of the human spaceflight program obviously was center stage.

Events of Interest


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